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Facebook, spy agencies, and freedom of speech in Canada


There has been much noise these days regarding what is termed the “Russian threat” to elections in the US, Canada, and other countries.  To what extent this threat is real or, on the other hand, is being over-hyped for geo-political purposes remains a matter of debate for some, especially in the alternative media.

However, one thing is clear.  This “Russian threat” is being used to justify troubling measures that go against freedom of speech and other rights.  In response to this Russian threat, the federal government appears to be bypassing Elections Canada, the federal independent body responsible, at least in the past, for overseeing elections in the country.

Instead, it is mobilizing a spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) to conduct elections-related research and other work.  It is also partnering with Facebook, which has pledged to work with political parties and the government, as well as hire thousands of new employees to act as censors and monitors in detecting “fake news” and “cyber meddling.”

It is a dangerous direction to involve spy agencies or secret police in the electoral process of any country, let alone to partner with a private foreign multinational like Facebook or Google in overseeing the process.

It is well-known that Facebook, Google and other foreign internet companies operate a “back door” through which they work with and supply information to US intelligence agencies like the CIA, FBI and NSA.  So now, we not only have to worry about Canadian spy agencies being involved in Canadian elections, but also US spy agencies.

The Trudeau government’s Minister of Democratic rights Karina Gould has glowingly talked about how “digital media empowers us” and that social media companies like Facebook are “the new arbiters of information … who are “shaping the democratic discourse and protecting our democracy.”

Has Minister Gould not read the news over the last several years about the questionable and anti-democratic practices of Facebook?  For example, Facebook is currently caught up in a huge scandal (which has been brewing for some time) regarding the handover of large amounts of personal information to the foreign consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.  Over 50 million Facebook users had information extracted from them without their consent and used in the primary campaign to elect Donald Trump.

Not without reason, some now say that Facebook is not a social media company but rather a “surveillance” company.  Nonetheless, our federal government has the brilliant idea of partnering with Facebook and other internet providers to “shape election discourse” in Canada.  Are we witnessing the merging of private corporate interests with those of the Canadian government into a Frankenstein “public – private surveillance state”?

Political censorship is already taking place on a number of fronts on the internet.  For example, Google has changed the algorithms on a number of alternative news websites, dramatically reducing the number of visitors.  These websites include Counterpunch, World Socialist Website, Global Research, Consortium News, Mediamatters, Commondreams, Democracy Now, Wikileaks, Truthout, The Intercept, and others.

Similar repressive processes are taking place on YouTube where various political videos are being restricted by YouTube censors.  A recent example was former US Senator Ron Paul who made a video critical of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, but then had its viewing severely restricted.

And where is all this hysteria about Russian influence going?  In the US and Canada, there are statements from politicians and spy agencies warning about so-called foreign-influenced “cut outs”, third party intermediaries, and “political actors” who are claimed to be wittingly or unwittingly acting on behalf of foreign powers and against the national interest.

For example, in a recent CIA, FBI and NSA report, there are listed of some of the issues that the news website Russia Today is blamed for raising in the last U.S. presidential election.  These issues include criticism of the two-party system in the US; that the political process is corrupt and dominated by corporations; that the US is a surveillance state with widespread infringements of civil liberties; that fracking is harmful to the environment; that US military intervention abroad is wrong; and that Wall Street is dominated by greed.

The implication of all this has been that, if any American citizens or US websites raise these same issues, they acting as conduits or agents of some kind for Russia.  These are reckless and undemocratic charges, and reminiscent of the McCarthyite period.

What gets lost in all this is that the worst examples of election dirty tricks and manipulation often come from the homegrown political parties in both Canada and the US.  Examples include the robocall scandal in Canada a couple of elections back, the Watergate scandal in the US, or the unfolding Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal happening right now.

With the development of social media and other technological and communication changes, it is clear that we are in a dramatically new situation, one in which we have to be very vigilant about freedom of speech and other rights.

To address this new situation, who and what should oversee elections and the electoral system in Canada to ensure that freedom of speech is not violated under any pretext?  Clearly not spy agencies or private foreign corporations like Facebook or Google.

But what about an independent public authority, possibly an elected one, possibly an expanded Elections Canada?

And what about social media platforms?  Social media is reaching the status of a utility, like water or electricity.  Should it be in public hands, rather than private hands, or at least face significantly more regulation?

As Canadians, we need to discuss these matters.

Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia.  He can be reached at:

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